Pu Erh Tea - What is it?

Pu Erh Tea

We’ve embraced Pu Erh tea wholeheartedly at Blue Mountain Tea Company and are creating converts every day!  If that sounds a bit evangelical -  guilty as charged.  I’ve personally experienced the benefits of this tea – as a hangover cure, a meditative aid and a stomach soother and I’m so excited to share it with our customers.

So what is Pu Erh?

Pu Erh is an elixir as much as a tea.  Similar to sparkling wine, which can only be called Champagne if it comes from that region, post fermented black tea cannot be designated Pu Erh unless it comes from the Yunnan district in South Western China.  It's one of the few teas to be designated a protected origin product by the Chinese government.  This incredibly complex and interesting tea is valued not only for its medicinal qualities but also for its refined, ever changing taste.  Collectors seek out the very best aged tea which can be upwards of 150 years old and will pay 10s of thousands of dollars for it. 

It begins with the Camelia Sinensis plant as all Chinese teas do.  It comes however, from ancient trees and it is sold in two forms – Sheng (Raw) and Shou (Ripe).

The process for both starts the same way.  Fresh picked tea is tossed in giant woks over an open flame, to halt the oxidation but not so long as to drive off all moisture and kill natural bacteria. The tea is then left to dry in the sun, but the bacteria live on.  The tea is compressed into cakes or bricks and stored for years or decades, continuing to ferment. 

Aged 'Raw' (Sheng): There are many schools on how to age pu-erh, but all involve controlled heat and humidity to smooth out the tea's rough edges and make for a dark, deep flavoured, smooth brew with woodsy, earthy qualities. 

'Ripe' (Shou): In the late 70s a new technique was developed as demand for the aged tea exploded. The tea makers developed an expedited fermentation process, bringing bricks of tea to market within 6 months of harvest.  The leaves are piled in rooms and left to effectively compost for months in the heat and humidity from their own biomass. The flavour is less deep and complex.

Chinese Medicinal Use

The Chinese believe that Pu Erh tea has greater health benefits than other teas. Pu Erh tea goes through a special fermentation process that makes it very beneficial to the digestive system.  It is often used medicinally to lower cholesterol as it contains lovastatin.  It’s also been promoted to remove toxins from the body, cure dysentery, induce weight loss, improve eyesight and promote blood circulation.

Pu-erh tea is also used for improving mental focus and clear thinking. 

Drinking Puerh

Most tea farmers sell their dried tea directly to vendors or wholesalers, but with pu-erh there's usually a middle step. Farmers sell their finished loose leaves (called maocha) to processors who often blend leaves from several sources, steam them, then compress them under heavy weights into a variety of shapes, such as frisbee-like cakes, square bricks, and small concave nests. This Ming Dynasty-era practice was originally developed to make tea easier to transport over long distances, but these days is reserved for teas designed for aging; the compressed form makes for a more stable and portable aging environment as time does its thing.

A cake of pu-erh is in a constant state of change, and as you chip away leaves to drink over the months and years, no two brews will taste the same. 

Young 'Raw': This looks like green tea more than anything else, and it's either brand new or not old enough (under, say, two to three years) to develop any of the aged characteristics of more mature pu-erh. It can be floral and sweet or as bitter as amaro, but there's an undeniable youth and grassy freshness to the brew. Some pu-erh people hate the taste of bitter young sheng, but others specifically seek it out for those bitter qualities. And some of the best young sheng out there should be drank fast, like green tea; not all pu-erh ages well, and time can just flatten out its snappy, vegetal flavor without adding anything new.

Fortunately, no matter what kind of pu-erh you have, brewing it is relatively straightforward. Like other fine Chinese teas, it benefits from using a lot of leaf in small pots, brewing for short times (15 to 60 seconds) over a series of as many as two dozen infusions with boiling or near-boiling water, adjusting as you go. (More on this kind of brewing right this way.) More than most tea, pu-erh is built for change, not just over months and years, but over a single brew session.

You can use a scale to weigh out your leaves to the gram, but I usually break off a six- to 10-gram chunk with a butter knife for a 100-milliliter gaiwan or clay teapot.* Even relatively simple fresh, young sheng pu-erh will develop in your pot as you keep re-steeping, and more mature aged teas can travel from dank and mushroomy to spicy-sweet to grapey-floral.